I recently visited the genome exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. A genome is an organism’s total DNA, which includes the genes that provide instructions for the organism’s development and maintenance.
Twenty-five years ago, the task of finding the total DNA sequences for any organism seemed overwhelming. But large teams of scientists have uncovered nearly complete sequences in many species, including ours. Genome research is indeed impressive, and the Smithsonian exhibit provides a clear and lively introduction to it.
But I felt a bit frustrated.
The exhibit’s emphasis is very much on our own species. It tells how genome research might cast light on human diseases, and it provides us with information about our own personal genomes. This human focus is understandable because the original goal of large-scale research was to sequence the human genome.
But the exhibit gives too little attention to some of the most startling discoveries — the similarities between human and nonhuman genomes.
The poster that most directly addresses these similarities includes a provocative heading: “I’m Related to What?” It then says, “You may look nothing like a mouse or a jellyfish, but you share thousands of genes with them.”
I anticipated that this poster would then say more about these similarities. Instead, it returns to the exhibit’s focus on humans, explaining that “scientists study other species to explore how genes influence human disorders.”
One display does inform us that we share 96 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees (which is actually a low estimate). I wish the exhibit provided additional specific examples of cross-species overlaps, such as the findings that we share about 60 percent of our genes with fruit flies and 80 to 90 percent with mice and rats.
Why do I consider such cross-species similarities so important?
For one thing, they add support to Darwin’s proposal that we and other living species share common ancestors. Even before the recent genome research, microbiologists had found that all species essentially use the same genetic code and create proteins from the same amino acids. Now genome findings suggest that human beings and other species, which might seem very different, share large segments of the same DNA. It increasingly appears that Darwin was correct when he speculated that all living species descended from common progenitors.
Our similarity to other species also is important to me as an animal activist. Those of us who try to defend animals constantly run up against the Western cultural view that animals are very different from and inferior to us, and we can therefore treat them any way we wish. How often we hear, “Oh, they’re just animals!” Even most Western philosophers have excluded animals from moral consideration. In the 1990s, when I began my involvement in animal rights, I had difficulty saying precisely why we should include animals in our moral deliberations.
Since then, I have come to believe there are two strong reasons for including nonhumans in our moral considerations. The first reason has been extensively argued by Peter Singer, who is something of a maverick in modern moral philosophy. Singer emphasizes that other animals, like us, experience pain, and if we believe we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering in the world, we must include nonhuman animals. To ignore their suffering and focus only on our own species is self-serving and prejudicial.
The second reason for giving moral status to animals comes from the genome findings and the other cross-species commonalities I have noted above. The evidence strongly suggests that we and other living beings are all related. We are all part of the same extended family. And as members of the same family, animals deserve to be included in our moral decision-making.
Now some might point out that we are also genetically related to plants, albeit more distantly. Do we have moral obligations toward plants, too? If so, how can we fulfill these obligations, for even vegans must eat plants to survive.
I do believe that our ethics should include plant life, and that we should try to inflict as little harm as possible on it. Paradoxically, people would consume fewer plants if they adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet. This is because animal industries harvest enormous quantities of plants for feed — more than people would need if they adhered to plant-based diets.
Moral decision-making has never been easy, and extending its scope to nonhuman species won’t make it any easier. But such an extension is vital for all the living beings who experience horrible suffering, as occurs in factory farms and many other settings. Thus far, animals’ suffering has had limited impact on the public or government officials. Perhaps it would make a difference if people knew that those subjected to such misery are their relatives.
Bill Crain is the president of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife. He lives in Montauk. The genome exhibit at the Smithsonian is on view through Labor Day.